October 1, 2021 • by Jonah Geller
Just about a year ago, I applied for the position of CEO of the York JCC. Having never been to York, my wife and I drove up from Baltimore to take a look around. It was the second day of Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year was just underway. While we knew that the JCC would be closed that day, we still wanted to see the outside of the building, drive around town, and get a sense of what might be.
The drive to York that day was very nice. I remember feeling warm, not only because of the sunny conditions and higher temperatures, but because we were on our way to a JCC – an institution that had an enormous impact on me as a child and young adult. It is an institution whose impact continues to gain momentum throughout my adult years, as a husband, parent, and Jewish communal service professional.
Even sweeter than the prospect of heading to a JCC was the feeling of crossing in to Pennsylvania – my home state. I grew up at the Pittsburgh JCC: pre-school, swimming lessons, little league, day camp, basketball, the orchestra, overnight camp, “Lox & Bagel Weekend,” – the list goes on. I even “ran away” to the JCC one January 1st. I knew that it was one of the few places open that day. Heading to York that day, “destination JCC” had already begun to feel like “destination home.”
During the 30 years that followed, my JCC journey would continue to New York, Detroit, and then Baltimore – transformative experiences at every turn. My kids learned to swim at a JCC. They enjoyed karate classes, day camp, basketball leagues, babysitting certification classes, and teen leadership programs. Our family hosted teenage athletes during the JCC Maccabi Games, a JCC Association of North America’s signature program. And through all of these JCC experiences, my professional career within JCC-affiliated organizations took on a journey of its own (camp director, executive director, CEO).
So, I was pretty excited (to say the least), as we entered the York JCC’s parking lot. We expected the parking lot to be empty. The doors to be locked. The lights to be off. What we did not expect, however, was to see the substantially-sized banner adorning the outside of the building. A banner with three words: “Everyone is Welcome.”
As I read the banner, I thought immediately of two words: “Hachnassat Orchim” (hach-nah-SAHT or-CHEEM) – Hebrew for “welcoming the guests.” The Torah puts great emphasis on the significance of welcoming people into one’s home and making them comfortable. “Hachnassat Orchim,” comes from the Biblical story of Abraham and Sarah, who warmly welcomed visitors who arrived at their tent.
Last week, Jews all over the world and here at the JCC welcomed guests in to their Sukkahs (SU-kahs). Reminiscent of the structures that God provided the Israelites in the desert upon being freed from slavery in Egypt, Sukkahs are temporary huts with at least three walls and an open roof.
The important value of Hachnassat Orchim carries on throughout the year in our homes and at celebratory events. Jews welcome guests on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath), at weddings under the “chuppah” (KHOO-pah) – an open, tent-like canopy structure under which a couple stands for the duration of the ceremony — on Passover, and many more occasions. We also welcome guests in more somber times. For example, during the first week of a mourning period, guests are welcomed into the home of the bereaved to pay their respects and grieve together as a community. We believe that welcoming guests is critical to enhancing our communities and to our lives.
Jewish tradition is not alone in valuing gracious hospitality, however. It is held in high regard among Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, and others. In fact, in 2013, a coalition of leading faith-based humanitarian organizations and academic institutions drafted “Welcoming the Stranger: Affirmations for Faith Leaders.” The Affirmations, which have been translated into Arabic, Chinese, French, Hebrew, Russian and Spanish, inspire leaders of all faiths to “welcome the stranger” with dignity, respect and loving support.
Today, the JCC’s parking lot is nearly full. The doors are open and the lights are on. And, whenever I enter the parking lot – no longer a guest, but an employee and active member – I feel a tremendous sense of pride. I am proud to be your CEO. I am proud to be part of an organization that is committed to “Hachnassat Orchim.” And I am grateful to you – JCC members, Staff, Board members, and supporters – for welcoming me into your tent.
Shabbat Shalom and have a great weekend.